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Category: philosophy

The Ill-Equipped: Blending Out of the Background


“Technology is at its best when it gets out of the way. Good technology blends in.” Most of the top technology firms take these ideas as their credo. This is the way Apple talked about the iPad, and the way Google now talks about their augmented reality appliance, Google Glass. The fact that the highest aim of technological devices is to get out of the way is a clue to how broken technological interfaces and devices have been.

Take Heidegger’s favorite example of the hammer. The hammer blends in, it gets out of the way when we are successfully hammering in a nail. The hammer itself, as a tool, blends into the background of the hammering activity. It’s only when the hammer breaks that it juts back into our world of hammering with its brute physicality as a “hammer.”

Another example used by Heidegger is wearing corrective lenses in the form of glasses. While they appear to be the closest thing, literally resting on your nose — while they are in use, they are the farthest thing from us. They exist in another world entirely.

Google Glass takes an interesting path to the background. The example of the hammer shows us that any tool, whether it contains onboard network-connected computer processing or not, can become a part of the background. Heidegger’s discussion of eyewear tells us something about what is near or far in the context of the person engaged in a project in the midst of the world. Google Glass moves to the background by attempting to move into, or behind, our eyes. Like the example of eyewear, the eye itself is part of the background when it is merely seeing. This technology gets out of the way by positioning itself outside our field of vision and then superimposing augmentation layers on it.


Google’s augmented reality appliance attempts to erase its material presence. Its only trace is the data it projects onto the world. In this sense, it is an metaphysical idealist par excellence. Its camera claims to record the world from a unique subjective perspective. From outside of the world, as it were. Do you see what I see? Well, now you can. Click here.

Of course, while the position of Google’s Glass gets it out of the user’s way, it puts itself directly in everyone else’s way. “Glass” breaks your face for me. It’s no longer operating as a face, now it’s a camera and potentially it’s projecting augmented reality data on or over me. This is the problem with misunderstanding how backgrounds work. Being physically “out of the way” is not the same thing as blending into a background.

Technology yearns to recede into the background just at the moment when the background itself is broken. Global warming and other forms of pollution have resulted in the geological era known as the anthropocene. The combined force of human activity is now part of what we used to call the background. Extreme weather and other strange events jut out of the background and disrupt the status quo of our everyday world. What they’re telling us is that our everyday world has ended. The background is permanently broken. The narrator no longer inscribes his story on the backdrop (augmented reality); it’s the backdrop that inscribes its narrative onto the narrator. These strange weather events are an augmentation of reality from reality’s point of view.

Rather than tools that attempt to blend with background, perhaps we need tools that are partially broken. Tools that are a little weird and occasionally provide unexpected results. Tools that remind us of where they came from and the labor conditions under which they were produced. Tools that start a conversation from the tool-side of the divide. In his letters from the 1940s and 50s, Samuel Beckett writes about his decision to write in French rather than English. He points to:

“le besoin d’être mal armé” (“the need to be ill-equipped”)

Writing in English was starting to “knot him up”, it was a language he knew too well. It was this ill-equipped writer that would one day write “Ill Seen, Ill Said“. In addition to the necessity of using broken tools, Beckett also points another writer with his phrase: Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme was one of the first poets to bring the background into the body of the poem. In his poem “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” the white space, the background of the text becomes part of the work. When philosopher Tim Morton talks about “environmental or ecological philosophy” he’s trying to get at just this. It’s not a philosophy that takes the environment or ecology as its topic, but rather a thinking that’s ill-equipped, a little broken, a little twisted, where shards of the background come jutting through.

Google’s Glass is signalling to us about backgrounds and our place in them. It’s a message we can only hear in the moments before we raise the appliance and attach it to our face.


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Mathematical Reason, Poets and the Purloined Letter


In the end, we’d like it all to add up. The simplest way for things to add up is through counting. If we’ve got a pile of candy, or money, counting to a higher number is considered a better result. In golf, fewer strokes makes a lower score and thus determines the winner. Another way we add things up is to make a whole. Two arms, two legs, a nose, a mouth, et cetera and at some point we have a body. This kind of mathematics is the basis of the crime drama.

Sherlock Holmes adds things up to create an image of a crime and a criminal. A dog that didn’t bark, a bit of cigarette ash, a kind of writing paper and ink and a print of an uneven heel in the mud flash into a kind of picture of the prime suspect. One of the pleasures of the Holmes stories is following along a chain of deductive reasoning that only seems reasonable in hindsight. Television channels are stuffed with one-hour dramas using Conan Doyle’s template. As we read, or more likely watch, there’s the feeling of a conjuring trick— the creation something out of nothing. Even though, as Holmes likes to say: “You know my methods…” Implied is a sort of mathematical reasoning that operates like a logical sorting machine. Anyone making proper use of the machine would come to the same result, like counting apples in a basket.

The other night I was reading a story featuring a precursor to Holmes. Here the amateur detective is C. Auguste Dupin. The story, written in 1844 by Edgar Allen Poe, is called “The Purloined Letter“. The Prefect of Police has come to Dupin to discuss the case of a letter stolen by a Minister and hidden somewhere in his house.

Dupin’s exploration of the case with the story’s narrator, his version of Watson, begins with an assessment of mathematics, poets and fools:

This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.”

“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

Then as now, the “mathematical reason” is regarded as reason par excellence. The Prefect of Police has brought in microscopes and measuring sticks to search every speck of the Minister’s house. He’s been very methodical, no stone has been left unturned. We would expect Dupin to defend mathematical reason as the ne plus ultra, the method that trumps all other methods. The mechanical method that produces a correct result regardless whether humans believe it or not. Instead he launches in to a discourse on the limits of mathematical reason:

“I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation –of form and quantity –is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom falls. In the consideration of motive it falls; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability –as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned ‘Mythology,’ mentions an analogous source of error, when he says that ‘although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as existing realities.’ With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans themselves, the ‘Pagan fables’ are believed, and the inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.”

In the era of “Big Data” the computational power at our disposal is enormous. Big Blue can play chess or the game show Jeopardy. Google Now has a pretty good chance of predicting what you’ll do next and the data set that might prove useful in doing it. Even the NSA and the CIA, continuing the efforts started with ‘Total Information Awareness’, have started collecting and saving every electronic digital trace that is collectable. “Big Data” gives us the sense that we’re seeing high resolution, at zillions of pixels per inch. We could even say that we’re seeing at a resolution that far outstrips the organic capacity of the human eye. It’s in the mind’s eye that this new kind of picture comes into focus.

Just as with the Prefect of Police, there’s an illusion of high-resolution clarity that comes with Big Data. We think we’re seeing everything there is to be seen. And further, that with sufficient amounts of data, all answers will clearly present themselves. I wonder what will happen when we have all the data there is to have and we still can’t find the purloined letter.

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Bing And Time

Woody Allen once observed that “ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But in 1948, Bing Crosby convinced the ABC radio network that “showing up” wasn’t actually necessary. That was the year he launched the first pre-recorded weekly radio broadcast. The previous year he’d made the same request of NBC, but they’d refused. For NBC, by definition radio programming was live with the exception of a few commercials.

Radio and TV historian Steve Schoenherr decribes Crosby’s deal:

The new ABC network, formed out of the sale of the old NBC Blue network in 1943 to Edward Noble, the “Lifesaver King,” was willing to break the tradition. It would pay Crosby $30,000 per week to produce a recorded show every Wednesday sponsored by Philco. He would also get $40,000 from 400 independent stations for the rights to broadcast the 60-minute show that was sent to them every Monday on three 16-inch aluminum discs that played 10 minutes per side at 33-1/3 rpm.

Eventually Crosby buys the first two Ampex 200A tape recorders, serial #1 and #2, to record his show. This allows him to control microphone placement and do multiple takes to get the best performance possible. As a film actor, Crosby had been used to this kind of production process. After hearing the tape of Crosby’s demo, ABC ordered 12 of the Ampex recorders and that was the beginning of the end of the broadcast of live radio programming.

By not showing up and instead creating the first pre-recorded radio broadcast, Bing Crosby set the pattern for all modern “broadcast” media. (He also pioneered microphone technique for vocalists.) Perhaps it never occurred to anyone that the audience would one day assert the same privilege that Crosby did in 1948. We are all Bing Crosby now, and there’s very little that we need to actually show up for in the world of broadcast media.

Now there’s only sports and news programming enveloping the earth in a new real-time synchronization of time that knows neither day nor night. As Richard Nixon sings in John Adams’s opera Nixon in China: “News has a kind of mystery.”

The heads of programming at the Networks used to decide when a particular recording would be played over their syndicate of local stations. Now that power rests with the audience. What’s “new” is what’s new to you; and the quality of material in the vast library of pre-recorded media far outstrips whatever is being presented live in real time right now. Like Crosby, we the audience, don’t bother showing up for the broadcast. We’ll choose the time and place for the performance to occur.

Time present is the sequencing of the recordings of time past. Time future is what is yet to be recorded, an appointment for our DVRs. If all time is pre-recorded, all time is unredeemable. Nothing need be missed, there is no possibility of that. Everything is just a matter of priority in the great queue of items awaiting our future consumption.

When we mortals are presented with seemingly infinite banquets aimed at our appetites, the discussion quickly turns to the seven deadly sins; and in particular, gluttony. While we can now consume anything at anytime and practically any place— what is it that we should be consuming? What asserts control over our potentially infinite appetites? Is it the rational “I” who decides while basking in the luxury of its individual freedom? Does our access to the infinite buffet transform us into a mature adult who can keep, not only its ego, but its id in check? Or do we end up joining the rest of the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of the inferno?

And as we more fully become Bing Crosby, do we engage over our real-time social networks by playing pre-recorded snippets for the purpose of constructing an ideal projection of ourselves as the narrator of our lives? Walter Benjamin regrets our loss of the “aura” in a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Are these new networks we’ve constructed even capable of transmitting “aura” across their tangle of wires? And if they are, are we capable of telling the difference? Through the recording arts, Crosby was able to create a technically better performance. He accomplished this through deferring the moment of transmission. The message is worked and re-worked at a distance from the performance date. The medium itself has deferral and distance built into it. As an audience we now re-wire broadcasting to take advantage of these qualities.

What Crosby removes from the encounter is the element of chance, the possibility that something unexpected could happen. Crosby pre-rolls the dice and presents the best outcomes for your enjoyment. There’s a presupposition in this approach that enjoyment is increased when all error is absent and the moments of spontaneity are pre-auditioned and arrives with the appropriate imprimatur. What we miss is the moment when the wrong note suddenly becomes right. Herbie Hancock describes such a moment while playing with Miles Davis:

“And just as Miles was about to start his solo for ‘So What,’ at the peak of the concert, I hit a note that was so wrong I thought I had crumbled the show down like a falling tent,” he recalled.

“And Miles took a breath, and played some notes that made my note right. It took me years to understand that Miles didn’t judge what I played. He worked with it. That lesson wasn’t just about music. It was about life.”

Bing changed our relationship with time. And while it may seem like we’ll manage to avoid error and present a photoshopped version of ourselves to the world, we simply encode our errors at another level. The unexpected unexpected emerges despite the best laid plans.

Even a pre-recorded roll of the dice will never abolish chance

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A Place For Our Infinities

A short piece of writing on our infinities: Gazing toward the stars, we discovered an infinite external universe. Looking inward, we recognized the capacity to hold multiple infinities in the grasp of our understanding. In our everyday life we attribute high value to things that exude a feeling of immortality. While some things we manufacture are meant to be ephemeral, in things of quality, we want something about them to last forever.

In thinking about infinities, and by this, I’m really referring to Tim Morton’s idea of very large finitudes, I was drawn in by the great plastic vortex in the Pacific ocean. This is location, created by ocean currents, where large deposits of granulated plastic swirl in an endless gyre. “Plastic” means something that can be molded, “plastic” is plastic. Not only can plastic take any shape, it can have a high level of durability while in use. The “mold-ability” of metals on the one hand and plaster on the other, find a mid-point in plastic. Plastic is a neutral material that functions like a simile. The plastic is like leather, it functions like ceramic, it gives the appearance of wood grain. Plastic never appears to us as plastic, it’s always “like” something else.

Plastic becomes itself again when it’s discarded. It’s no longer “like” anything; it “is” plastic. Different kinds of plastic have different lifespans. Some plastic, plastic bags for instance, have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. A plastic bottle, on the other hand, has a lifespan of 300 to 500 years. The “use” of a plastic bottle may occur over 30 minutes, the time it takes to drink a soda or some filtered water. If that plastic bottle is part of the eight million tons of garbage that reaches the ocean every day, it may go on to have a long life as a piece of bottle-shaped plastic.

In the world of literature, we talk about immortal works. Art is long, but life is short. “Words” also have a plastic quality, they can be selected and sequenced in such a way to conjure up almost anything. The word “elephant” isn’t an elephant, but it can cause the reader to register neurological activity that is “like” that of seeing an actual elephant. We can even use words to describe things like an infinite series of numbers. Here we register neurological activity of something that we can’t actually see.

But much like the plastic bottle, texts have a lifespan. They aren’t immortal. On leap day of this year, philosopher Graham Harman shared some thoughts about the lifespan of books:

Books have a much, much higher childhood death rate than people. If a book makes it to age 21 and is still being discussed and still changing career paths, then it’s obviously a huge success.

I’m a great believer in classic books, but not at all a believer in “immortal” books. Plato will not be read one million years from now, though under certain scenarios he might still be read in another 2000 or 5000 years.

You can’t do “immortal” work because that’s quite impossible. The human species will probably be turning into something rather different that won’t much care about most of our supposedly immortal books and empires.

That said, there’s still a big difference between writing a book that’s readable for 3 years versus one that’s readable for 20, 50, or 500 years. That’s the scale on which very high-quality work announces itself as opposed to more transient period pieces– not the non-existent immortal scale.

In the age of the digital network, the ephemeral seems to gain a kind of immortality. Publishing written words is almost as simple as speaking. Once published to the Network, whatever it is, is there forever. And theoretically, it is findable via some method of search. In this sense, this immortal ephemera is like the plastic bottle–useful for a short amount of time, but possibly destined to a very long after life. Perhaps it is also swirling about in the gyre of some immense database. However, there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of life of a work that Graham Harman discusses and the life of a tweet saved forever in a networked database server.

When we discuss economies of abundance in the digital age, we’re assuming the low-cost production of very large finitudes. Plastic is this kind of thing, it’s the least expensive physical simile for a large range of objects. It also has the strange quality of sometimes having a lifespan that is five or six times that of an ordinary human. In this ecological age where we are newly surrounded by economies of abundance, what shall we do with our infinities? We can no longer send them away when we’ve annihilated distance through technology. The plastic as “plastic” waves to us from the gyres in the ocean. It will swirl there for our children and our children’s children. What ever shall we do with our infinities?

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